Several weeks ago I was fortunate to attend this event, a celebration of the life and work of J.L. Carr that was held at Shandy Hall¹, in Coxwold, North Yorkshire.  An exhibition was opened which collected and displayed all of Carr’s idiosyncratic and aesthetically triumphant county maps of England, followed by an illustrated lecture given by Carr’s son (who currently oversees the publishing house his father founded) on the subject of J.L. Carr’s life and work. If the former has been detailed in some depth by a well-received biography, then the latter is usually truncated, in general, to the thoroughly outstanding novel A Month in the Country. Indeed I must admit, somewhat ashamedly, that at the time of writing it is the only one of his work’s I’ve encountered, apart from the array of county maps he created that were on display at Coxwold. A Month in the Country is probably as close to perfect as a novel can get: a tight, emotional, faultless evocation of loss and nostalgia, set within a beautifully sparse plot and informed by an unmatched eye for the sense of place and history in the English landscape². One thing that emerged of particular interest during the fascinating talk given in the evening was that Bob Carr, J.L. Carr’s son, had spent his working life as an archaeologist, with (I think) Suffolk County Council. I found this an immensely striking co-incidence, as A Month in the Country features a memorable cameo by an archaeologist, Moon, who is excavating in the field near to the church in which the novel’s main character, the art restorer Birkin, is rescuing a massive medieval Doom painting from beneath its whitewash overlay. Both are damaged veterans of the Flanders trenches, seeking some kind of healing or restitution.

Bob Carr’s job and Charles Moon’s trench propelled my thoughts towards other archaeologists in literature, and the role they might play in portrayals of the present’s relationship to the past. I’m well aware that there are a couple of streams of pre-existent thought on this topic. One of these is the investigation of the role of archaeology in science fiction/genre novels, where very frequently archaeology is a perfect vehicle for expressing aspects of the past’s malevolence and the ways in which, if disturbed, it can impinge upon the present. Archaeology, as task,  also becomes the model of a ‘quest-narrative’ with the excitement of the chase and the past (or at least some artefact acting as its synecdochic stand-in) as the quarry. There is also a substantial amount of work on the place of archaeology in popular culture more generally (by Cornelius Holtorf in particular) centred in the main on the depiction of archaeologists in television documentaries and in mainstream cinema, but I was seeking examples culled from the novel, to sit alongside Charles Moon.

I know of the exhaustive list of archaeology in fiction, compiled by Anita Cohen-Williams, but my thoughts veered towards two books in particular, one on her list and one not: First Light by Peter Ackroyd, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, both of which feature archaeology in a somewhat oblique manner³. The former is as bewildering, beautiful, and hallucinatory as the rest of Ackroyd’s fiction, and if one sidesteps some of the more Baroque renderings of rural antics, then one finds a deep meditation on the links between the landscape and the sky, the past and the future, archaeology and astronomy. In the latter, digging is hardly the Magistrate’s primary concern, but Coetzee shows how the archaeology that he pursues occasionally as a hobby informs his sense of self and his humanity; further, the awarenesses he gains from his excavations about the nature of time and the inevitability of its triumph colour his perception of the chain of events that forms the narrative’s core. In all three of these novels it is archaeology’s extraordinary fecundity as a symbol that surely draws the novelists towards it. Not only is it capable of being used to transmit metaphors concerning the presence of the past and its inevitable interaction with the Now, but it is also an investigative discipline that has an acute awareness of the landscape and our place in it, making marks that might be deciphered in centuries to come. Thus archaeology’s usefulness is its load-bearing capacity as supporter of metaphor, and that it works at illuminating the boundaries of things: past/present, people/landscape. Finally, no consideration of the cameo appearances of archaeology in literature can really be complete without reference to Borges, and to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius in particular. Here, in a world in which idealist philosophy has triumphed over materialism, the archaeologists labour to ‘produce’ those objects they desire to find in their excavations. These hrönir are the artefacts spontaneously created by desire or subconscious need on the part of the excavators which have been of invaluable aid to the archaeologists of Tlön in modifying the past, “which is now no less plastic, no less malleable than the future”. Borges, as ever, is using the fantastic to tell us something we perhaps had scarcely perceived about the world in which we live, as our archaeologists ought not to need hrönir to tell them the truth of that.

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¹ Shandy Hall is quite one of the most astonishing and unique places you might ever visit, were you fortunate enough to happen by it: an extraordinary nexus of place, literature, and history. The carefully curated parsonage in which Lawrence Sterne created Tristram Shandy has been preserved not just as monument to the man and his work, but as a living exhibition devoted to the perpetually slippery relationships between text and life, books and thought. Oh, and it has some improbably beautiful gardens attached too.

² A more recent novel that shares most of these concerns and displays an almost equally adept handling of loss and landscape is Peter Hobbs ‘s The Short Day Dying, which is probably about as good a book as I’ve read in the past two or three years.

³ I know of two other novels in which archaeology features as the profession of the lead character, Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing and Out of this World by Graham Swift, although I have to admit not having read either. In any case, something interests me more in the three novels by Carr, Ackroyd, and Coetzee in the way archaeology is not the central issue in the narrative, nor even the main meaning-bearing metaphor, but something that is used, to a greater or lesser extent, to interact in a subtextual manner with the story’s broader interests.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius